Will This War Ruin the Army?

Mackubin T. Owens

July 1, 2005

Even those of us who supported the decision to go to war in Iraq have to acknowledge that the US military, especially the ground forces, are being stretched to near the breaking point. This problem transcends the now sterile debate over postwar planning or whether there were enough troops used in the initial invasion. It has to do with the long term health of the US military.

Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. It should not come as a shock to anyone that long wars wreck armies. Even the best armies, those that are well-led and in which morale and esprit de corps are high, eventually run out of steam. Good personnel policies can put off the day of reckoning for a while but not forever.

Most of the burden in Iraq is borne by the US Army and the Marine Corps. Both services have gone out of their way to avoid the personnel mistakes of Vietnam. As we found out during that earlier conflict, policies that undermine unit cohesion lessen fighting power and make casualties more likely. But the demands of that conflict are making it increasingly difficult to do the right thing.

During the early months of the earlier conflict in Southeast Asia, both the Marines and the Army tried to rotate units through Vietnam. But heavier-than-expected casualties led both services to move to an individual replacement approach. On the one hand, morale was enhanced by the knowledge that one would be in-country for only a year (13 months for us lucky Marines). On the other, a unit lost its most experienced members each month, to be replaced by "FNGs" (f——- new guys). Although the US military performed extremely well in Vietnam, there’s no question that over the long run, the individual replacement system undermined unit cohesion and reduced US fighting power.

Repairing the damage to our forces after Vietnam took about a decade. In general, the services attempted to reduce personnel turbulence. For instance, the Marines instituted a "cohort" approach to training and deployment for infantry units. The idea is to keep individuals together as long as possible throughout their enlistment. This reduces personnel turbulence and strengthens unit cohesion. Soldiers fight better when they are surrounded with those they know and trust. The cohort approach was based on a lesson from World War II. Most historians rate the fighting power of the German Wehrmacht as among the highest in history, even as Germany began to collapse in 1944-45. One of the reasons for this is that, almost to the very end of the war, battle-hardened officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) were pulled out of combat to train new recruits as a unit, and then return with them to the line.

The current operational and personnel tempo (OPTEMPO and PERSTEMPO) are close to breaking this system, making retention more difficult. A new RAND study, commissioned by the Army—"Stretched Thin: Army Forces for Sustained Operations"—concludes that the service will face readiness problems unless overseas deployments are scaled back.

Although the Army is currently ahead of its retention goals for fiscal year 2005, high OPTEMPO and multiple deployments to Iraq may cause many good soldiers and Marines to decide not to reenlist when their terms of enlistment are up if the pace of operations does not slacken. There is another problem as well especially affecting Special Operations Forces (SOF) and the Army National Guard—the lure of private contractors, who are able to offer well trained and highly skilled individuals twice what the military pays them.

Concerns about casualties are not necessarily the problem: the Marine Corps, whose casualty rate is proportionately three times that of the Army, continues to exceed its recruiting goals. The economy seems more relevant: The last time the Army was so short of recruits was six years ago — when there was no war but a strong economy. For fiscal year 2005, the Army is 40 percent short of its goal of 80,000 new soldiers. After missing its quotas for four consecutive months, the Army did reach its monthly recruiting goal in June. But the Army still faces a shortfall equal to a month’s worth of recruits—not a good thing when the Army is trying to increase its end strength by some 30,000 soldiers in order to create ten new brigades.

While the Marines achieved their goal for new recruits, they missed their monthly contracting goal—recruits who sign up now for training sometime in the future—for the fifth month in a row. Low contracting figures say "trouble ahead" for military recruiters.

Also troubling is the decline in enlistments for the National Guard, which according to the Department of Defense (DoD), is now some 10,000 soldiers short of its year-to-date goal. In addition, the OPTEMPO for the Guard is also very high—these "part time" soldiers now account for almost half of US forces in Iraq and have taken over most of the peacekeeping duties elsewhere, e.g. in Kosovo.

What can be done? The Army already pays enlistment bonuses of $20,000 to certain individuals and the Pentagon will probably ask Congress to double them. DoD will also ask Congress to raise the age limit for active-duty service from 35 to 40. More troubling is the Army’s decision to go to a 15 month enlistment policy, which means that a soldier will receive only basic and advanced individual training—no unit training—before deploying to Iraq as an individual replacement—a veritable repeat of the failed Vietnam War era personnel policy. To make matters worse, the Army is also contemplating lower enlistment standards and the retention of "problem soldiers" who otherwise would have been released from active duty.

What about a draft? Charlie Moskos, the renowned military sociologist, has been calling for a return to the draft since 9/11. In the June 8 edition of the Chicago Tribune, Moskos reiterates his argument. "Although we are in a global war against terrorism, the American citizenry is not being asked for any sacrifice." "Patriotism-lite" he claims, is the order of the day. Moskos’ goal goes beyond the war. He sees conscription as a way to revive the idea of the citizen soldier and to provide the youth of today with "a shaping civic experience."

Although there is much to be said on behalf of Moskos’ conception of citizen soldiers and military service as a way to create civic virtue, the draft has replace social security as the third rail of American politics. Had the draft been revived right after 9/11, the rage militaire among Americans might have permitted it, but not now. Opponents of President Bush and the war in Iraq would immediately claim that "Bush lied" and that he had intended to conscript our children all along. Additionally, conscription will not provide the sort of soldiers the current and future American military needs.

The Army is in the process of increasing the number of combat brigades from 33 to 43. This helps. So does an increase in the number of recruiters. But at the micro level, there are not too many good options in the short run. Indeed, it would better from a cohesion standpoint to avoid some of the things the Army is currently doing: offering shorter enlistments, lowering standards, retaining soldiers who otherwise would be released from the service, and shifting troops from non-deploying units in order to bring deploying units to full strength. The turbulence caused by such a practice cascades, eventually causing the same sort of havoc that occurred during Vietnam, which again, took years to repair.

There are more choices for the long run, even though they are expensive: tying educational benefits to military service, permitting individuals to leave the service with some benefits even if they have not completed 20 years, and offering bigger enlistment and reenlistment bonuses.

But the most important thing that the country needs to do is to fix the strategy-force mismatch that currently afflicts the military. For better or worse, the United States now underwrites the security of much of the world. Accordingly, our strategy requires ground forces oriented not only toward winning wars but carrying out "constabulary" missions. The Pentagon’s emphasis on buying high-tech weapons means that the ground forces necessary to execute such constabulary missions are often under-funded.

Of course we need naval, air and space power to control the world’s "commons." As the British strategist Colin Gray has remarked, for the United States to be a land power anywhere but North America, it must also be a sea power.

But constabulary operations require robust ground forces, which in the eyes of many defense analysts before the war in Iraq, were not very useful. This was especially true of those enamored of a "revolution in military affairs" based on emerging information technologies. Of course, some elements of military transformation will permit ground forces to do more with less, but the kind of war we are fighting in Iraq today requires larger rather than smaller ground forces. If we are not willing to fight these kinds of war, our strategy will fail. But if we fight them without the necessary forces it will fail as well.

I remain guardedly optimistic about the war in Iraq. But like all wars, it has taken its toll on the military that is fighting it, especially the US Army and the Marine Corps. As our Vietnam experience illustrates, if US military forces reach a "tipping" point due to our presence in Iraq, fixing things will be a difficult proposition. Those of us who remember the time after Vietnam don’t want to see a repeat of that period.

Mackubin T. Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is associate dean of academics and professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. In 1968 he led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam.